Complex Search-Results Pages Change Search Behavior: The Pinball Pattern
Gone are the days when Google would return a simple list of 10 blue links, each neatly packaged with a URL, blue link, and text snippet. Today, search-engine-results pages (SERPs) are far more complex. The majority of SERPs on major web-search engines like Google and Bing present at least one informational, interactive feature. Left: A results page for George Brett from 2009; Right: A results page for the same query in 2019, with a variety of content types, features, and presentations. The continuously evolving layout of the SERP is shaping how people search. Each new feature affects the distribution of users’ attention on the page. In the old days of web search, users would reliably focus their attention on the first few results at the top of the page and would sequentially move from result to result down the list. (In the research for our first edition of the How People Read on the Web report, we found that in 59% of cases, people scanned the SERP sequentially, from the first results, to the second, and so on, without skipping any results or looking at the right side of the page.) That linear SERP pattern still exists today, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. Today, we find that people’s attention is distributed on the page and that they process results more nonlinearly than before. We observed so much bouncing between various elements across the page that we can safely define a new SERP-processing gaze pattern — the pinball pattern. In a pinball pattern, the user scans a results page in a highly nonlinear path, bouncing around between results and SERP features. A traditional pinball machine arcade game (left) is a glass-covered cabinet using an angled play field with various bumpers, obstacles, and targets. The player uses flippers to shoot and bounce a metal ball around the play field, receiving points for hitting different targets. In a pinball pattern (right), the user’s gaze similarly “bounces” around between visual elements and keywords in a SERP. Our findings come from the Search Meta-Analysis Project, an analysis of 471 queries made by participants in usability-testing and eyetracking studies that we conducted between 2017 and 2019. What Causes the Pinball Pattern Today’s SERPs often involve not only links, but also images, video, embedded text content, and even interactive features. Any given search can return an assortment of different visual elements. The variety of information and presentation plays a critical role in shifting user attention across the SERP. One participant was researching how to install French drains in her backyard by herself. Her search for french drain returned text results, a shopping-results carousel, a knowledge panel, a people-also-ask element, and a video pack. Her gaze followed a pinball pattern — bouncing around as salient visual elements and keywords redirected her attention. The visual weight of elements on the page drives people’s scanning patterns. Because these elements are distributed all over the page and because some SERPs have more such elements than others, people’s gaze patterns are not linear. The presence and position of visually compelling elements often affect the visibility of the organic results near them. This gazeplot shows a study participant’s eye gazes as he searched for the best refrigerator to buy. The numbers represent the order of the fixations. The participant’s gaze flicked around between highly salient elements. First, he focused on the prices in the sponsored shopping results on the right, and then skipped down and to the left to read the featured snippet. He then bounced back up to result #3 and #1 (both ads) before glancing down to the…
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